The long road to Coober Pedy and Port Augusta

We left Marree full of confidence that we would reach the quirky pub at William Creek and experience a flight over Anna Creek station and the Painted Hills. How wrong we were! We had just left Coward Springs along the Oodnadatta Track when a loud thump and scraping noise brought our truck to a sudden halt. The air tank which operated our brakes had come loose and was bouncing along the road. Fortunately for us, driver Darren was an experienced truckie.

Repairing the broken brake cylinders

Crawling under the truck with co-guide and wife, Janene and with only a body width between the ground and the bottom of the truck, Darren was not too happy. It drew a few choice phrases from his lips. But half an hour or so later, with the help of a few nylon straps we were back underway.

William Creek sports a pub and a telecommunications hub. The pub is run by Trevor Wright who owns Wrights Air. It was Trevor who offered to fly up from Arkaroola to assist Darren to further repair our bus and ensure its roadworthiness all the way back to Adelaide. But we tourists were not troubled by any of this and were whisked off by Trevor‘s son Mark into a Cessna Grand Caravan for our flight over the Painted Hills.

Pilot Mark from Wright’s Air, with our group

Mark informed us that Anna Creek Station is as large as Tasmania and the largest pastoral lease in South Australia, covering 2 million hectares. When he’s not taking tourist flights, he helps the current station managers muster cattle in the Cessna. Anna Creek Station was one of the original Sidney Kidman properties and is still the largest cattle station in the world with the capacity to stock 10,000 head of cattle. We could not even see any cattle from our lofty height in the Cessna but we were there to see the Painted Hills.

Anna Creek

The extraordinary mesa formations of the Painted Hills on the station stretch all the way to the Breakaways at Coober Pedy. The top layers of these hills are silcrete and weather less than the softer banded shale underneath, thus forming the fabulous formations below. The mesas or plateaus are not as weathered as the buttes, which can become pointed cones.

Butte, Painted Hills, Anna Creek Station
Mesas, Painted Hills, Anna Creek Station

After lunch we boarded our patched up bus and continued west to Coober Pedy, arriving just as dust storm hit the town.

Coober Pedy was an important destination for us as 50 odd years ago Fred had a mining license for a few months. Back then, Coober Pedy was a wild frontier town, a haven for a multicultural community trying their luck in opal mining – Croatians, Germans, Italians and Serbians. We visited the Serbian underground church which was just being built in 1969. Tunnelled into the cretaceous clay soil, the beautiful Orthodox Church has many stained glass windows and a baptismal bath.

St Elijah’s Serbian Orthodox church, Coober Pedy

We explored the Umoona underground mine. Umoona is the name of the local Aboriginal community and was formed after the government reserve was closed. Prior to 1915, when 14 year old William Hutchison found opal at Coober Pedy, the local Aboriginal tribes passed through the area, but around 1959 were relocated to a reserve at Coober Pedy, many displaced by the Maralinga nuclear testing. Fred remembers the wild nature of Coober Pedy in the late 1960’s when a 40 gallon drum of water had to last a week. There was little mechanisation. Miners bought detonators and gelignite from the miner’s store and occupational health and safety did not exist. And the local Umoona people always knew where the best opals were to be found.

Underground miner

On an earlier visit, Fred met up with a retired miner who explained the old methods of digging with a pick, using detonators and a rolled up newspaper to demonstrate the stick of gelignite to blast open the tunnels. Now the Umoona mine is a museum of sorts and you can purchase uncut or cut opal jewellery and fossilised opal, even more valuable than jewellery. The digging by machinery and noodling occurs way out of town.

Fred and local miner

In the afternoon we took a tour to the Kanku-Break­aways Con­ser­va­tion Park which forms part of the tra­di­tion­al coun­try of the Antakir­in­ja Matun­t­jara Yankun­yt­jat­jara peo­ple. The landforms were similar to what we had experienced by air at William Creek but with the storm approaching formed a majestic landscape. The Papas or two dogs represent a men’s story. A white dog and a brown one are sitting down. To the far right of the picture is a mesa or wati which represents a man, their owner.

Two dogs or papas with Wati their human owner
Two dogs or Papas

We wandered around town, with Fred trying to identify old landmarks from his earlier time.The town bore no resemblance to his experience. Water supply and sewerage are all provided by the council and power supplied by wind farms. We had wifi and telephone, with a coffee pod machine and ensuite bathroom in our underground room.

Desert Cave Hotel

We enjoyed two nights in our underground hotel room and set off back to Adelaide via Woomera and Port Augusta and the Australian Arid Lands Botanic Gardens. It was a fitting end to a wonderful trip exploring the South Australian outback.

Swainsonia formosa, Sturt’s desert pea with desert rose

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